Halifax ceremony marks 50th anniversary of Navy’s worst peacetime accident

Halifax ceremony marks 50th anniversary of Navy’s worst peacetime accident

HALIFAX — Allan “Dinger” Bell has no idea how long he was in the flames that engulfed the HMCS Kootenay engine room after the destroyer was rocked by an explosion that led to the worst peacetime accident in the history of the Royal Canadian Navy.

Bell was one of 10 men on duty in the engine room 50 years ago when a bearing in the starboard gear box failed, causing the explosion on the morning of Oct. 23, 1969.

Only three of them made it out alive.

“It happened too fast for it to be a shock — time was going so fast it stood still,” Bell said at a Halifax memorial ceremony Wednesday, describing the experience as “hell on earth.”

“I don’t know how long I was in the fire,” he said. “You had … men burning to death, and they wanted to live. It wasn’t a sweet place to be.”

In total, nine crew members were killed and 53 others were injured as fire and toxic smoke filled the vessel, which had been conducting a full-power sea trial in waters off Plymouth, England.

Bell, who was 21 at the time, sustained third-degree burns to nearly half his body.

The 71-year-old Dartmouth, N.S., resident, who was awarded the Canadian Armed Forces Wound Stripe earlier this year, was one of dozens of former crew, families, and dignitaries who attended the ceremony marking the anniversary Wednesday at Halifax’s Point Pleasant Park.

John Montague, a retired navy captain, was a junior officer aboard Kootenay during the disaster. He described the scene on the stricken vessel for the assembled crowd.

“The smoke was so thick and travelled so quickly even the bridge had to be evacuated,” he said. ”The heat from the fire was so intense it actually melted an aluminum ladder in the engine room.”

Montague said there was so much damage in the initial stages following the explosion that the main engine couldn’t be shut down, meaning Kootenay continued to steam ahead “at full speed and completely out of control.”

“Even our communications system was unserviceable and there was no way to contact the other ships in the flotilla since they were over the horizon and completely out of sight.”

Montague said it took about two hours to bring the fire under control, and during that time the crew distinguished itself with numerous acts of “extreme bravery.”

At one point, three of the ship’s divers strapped on their scuba tanks and went below decks to assist in the rescue operations.

One of them was John Womack, who was a 20-year-old able seaman at the time.

“You couldn’t see, and it was hot,” said Womack, who helped pour foam into the engine room from a deck above it.

“We had to exchange (tanks) because the regulators on our diving tanks would get gummed up after 15 minutes, so they had to be cleaned.”

Other ships that were part of the exercise eventually came to Kootenay’s assistance, including Canada’s last aircraft carrier, HMCS Bonaventure.

Rocky Thorne, a cook aboard the Bonaventure, described what he saw as his vessel came alongside Kootenay.

“The side of the ship had completely mushroomed out — the metal — and there was smoldering stuff coming out,” Thorne said. “We started sending over (fire) attack teams because they were exhausted.”

Kootenay was eventually towed back to Portsmouth, U.K., where it was dry-docked. Its propellers were removed and the ship was towed to Halifax, where it arrived on Nov. 27, 1969.

Following repairs the vessel was re-commissioned in 1972 and it served on the West Coast until 1995. In November 2000 Kootenay was towed to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico where it was sunk to become an artificial reef.

Its legacy remains the lasting improvements to firefighting and damage control practices in the navy following the disaster, along with the heroic actions of crew members credited with saving lives and the ship itself that day.

“A less professional crew could easily have finished the day off in life rafts,” Kootenay’s commanding officer Cmdr. Neil Norton later wrote of the disaster.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 23, 2019.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

Navy Accident

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Alberta identifies 1,183 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday

50.5% of all active cases are variants of concern

Whistle Stop Cafe owner Christopher Scott and his sister Melodie pose for a photo at the Mirror restaurant. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Alberta Health Services delivers ‘closure order’ to Mirror restaurant

Alberta Health Services says it has delivered a closure order to a… Continue reading

Flags bearers hold the Canadian flag high during the Flags of Remembrance ceremony in Sylvan Lake in this October file photo. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
New project to pay tribute to Canadians killed in Afghanistan

Flags of Remembrance scheduled for Sept. 11

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Alberta vaccine rollout expanding to front-line health-care workers

More than 240,000 eligible health-care workers can begin booking vaccine appointments starting… Continue reading

File photo
Security and police block the entrance to GraceLife Church as a fence goes up around it near Edmonton on Wednesday April 7, 2021. The Alberta government has closed down and fenced off a church that has been charged with refusing to follow COVID-19 health rules. Alberta Health Services, in a statement, says GraceLife church will remain closed until it shows it will comply with public-health measures meant to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Hundreds gather to support Alberta church shut down for ignoring COVID-19 orders

SPRUCE GROVE, Alta. — Hundreds of people are gathered outside an Alberta… Continue reading

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces march during the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, Friday, July 8, 2016. The Canadian Armed Forces is developing contingency plans to keep COVID-19 from affecting its ability to defend the country and continue its missions overseas amid concerns potential adversaries could try to take advantage of the crisis. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canadian special forces supported major Iraqi military assault on ISIL last month

OTTAWA — Some Canadian soldiers supported a major military offensive last month… Continue reading

A woman pays her repects at a roadblock in Portapique, N.S. on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. The joint public inquiry in response to the April mass shooting in Nova Scotia has announced a mandate that includes a probe of the RCMP response as well as the role of gender-based violence in the tragedy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Creating permanent memorial to Nova Scotia mass shooting victims a delicate task

PORTAPIQUE, N.S. — Creating a memorial for those killed in Nova Scotia’s… Continue reading

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 6, 2020. Top Tory leaders of past and present will speak with supporters today about what a conservative economic recovery from COVID-19 could look like. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Erin O’Toole says ‘I didn’t hide who I was’ running for Conservative leader

OTTAWA — Erin O’Toole assured Conservative supporters that he never hid who… Continue reading

Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau, second from left, celebrates his goal with teammates, from left to right, Matthew Tkachuk, Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson, of Sweden, during second period NHL hockey action against the Edmonton Oilers, in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal
Jacob Markstrom earns shutout as Flames blank Oilers 5-0 in Battle of Alberta

CALGARY — It took Sean Monahan breaking out of his goal-scoring slump… Continue reading

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia's opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan's government, but they say Monday's throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province's economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

VICTORIA — British Columbia’s opposition parties acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented… Continue reading

A grizzly bear walks on a treadmill as Dr. Charles Robbins, right, offers treats as rewards at Washington State University's Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center in this undated handout photo. Grizzly bears seem to favour gently sloping or flat trails like those commonly used by people, which can affect land management practices in wild areas, says an expert who has written a paper on their travel patterns. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Anthony Carnahan *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Grizzly bears prefer walking on gentle slopes at a leisurely pace like humans: study

VANCOUVER — Grizzly bears seem to favour gently sloping or flat trails… Continue reading

FILE - In this July 27, 2020, file photo, nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y. Moderna said Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, its COVID-19 shot provides strong protection against the coronavirus that's surging in the U.S. and around the world. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)
The COVID-19 wasteland: searching for clues to the pandemic in the sewers

OTTAWA — When Ottawa Public Health officials are trying to decide whether… Continue reading

Most Read